London: A Biography

London: A Biography

by Peter Ackroyd

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Overview

A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK

Here are two thousand years of London’s history and folklore, its chroniclers and criminals and plain citizens, its food and drink and countless pleasures. Blackfriar’s and Charing Cross, Paddington and Bedlam. Westminster Abbey and St. Martin in the Fields. Cockneys and vagrants. Immigrants, peasants, and punks. The Plague, the Great Fire, the Blitz. London at all times of day and night, and in all kinds of weather. In well-chosen anecdotes, keen observations, and the words of hundreds of its citizens and visitors, Ackroyd reveals the ingenuity and grit and vitality of London. Through a unique thematic tour of the physical city and its inimitable soul, the city comes alive.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400075515
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/23/2009
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 848
Sales rank: 179,105
File size: 19 MB
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About the Author

PETER ACKROYD is also the author of London Under, Shakespeare: The BiographyThames: The Biography, and Venice: Pure City; acclaimed biographies of T. S. Eliot, Dickens, Blake, and Sir Thomas More; and several successful novels. He has won the Whitbread Book Award for Biography, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the Somerset Maugham Award, among others.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Sea!

If you were to touch the plinth upon which the equestrian statue of King Charles I is placed, at Charing Cross, your fingers might rest upon the projecting fossils of sea lilies, starfish or sea urchins. There is a photograph of that statue taken in 1839; with its images of hackney cabs and small boys in stove-pipe hats the scene already seems remote, and yet how unimaginably distant lies the life of those tiny marine creatures. In the beginning was the sea. There was once a music-hall song entitled "Why Can't We Have the Sea in London?," but the question is redundant; the site of the capital, fifty million years before, was covered by great waters.

The waters have not wholly departed, even yet, and there is evidence of their life in the weathered stones of London. The Portland stone of the Customs House and St. Pancras Old Church has a diagonal bedding which reflects the currents of the ocean; there are ancient oyster shells within the texture of Mansion House and the British Museum. Seaweed can still be seen in the greyish marble of Waterloo Station, and the force of hurricanes may be detected in the "chatter-marked" stone of pedestrian subways. In the fabric of Waterloo Bridge, the bed of the Upper Jurassic Sea can also be observed. The tides and storms are still all around us, therefore, and as Shelley wrote of London "that great sea . . . still howls on for more."

London has always been a vast ocean in which survival is not certain. The dome of St. Paul's has been seen trembling upon a "vague troubled sea" of fog, while dark streams of people flow over London Bridge, or Waterloo Bridge, and emerge as torrents in the narrow thoroughfares of London. The social workers of the mid-nineteenth century spoke of rescuing "drowning" people in Whitechapel or Shoreditch and Arthur Morrison, a novelist of the same period, invokes a "howling sea of human wreckage" crying out to be saved. Henry Peacham, the seventeenth-century author of The Art of Living in London, considered the city as "a vast sea, full of gusts, fearful-dangerous shelves and rocks," while in 1810 Louis Simond was content to "listen to the roar of its waves, breaking around us in measured time."

If you look from a distance, you observe a sea of roofs, and have no more knowledge of the dark streams of people than of the denizens of some unknown ocean. But the city is always a heaving and restless place, with its own torrents and billows, its foam and spray. The sound of its streets is like the murmur from a sea shell and in the great fogs of the past the citizens believed themselves to be lying on the floor of the ocean. Even amid all the lights it may simply be what George Orwell described as "the ocean bottom, among the luminous, gliding fishes." This is a constant vision of the London world, particularly in the novels of the twentieth century, where feelings of hopelessness and despondency turn the city into a place of silence and mysterious depths.

Yet, like the sea and the gallows, London refuses nobody. Those who venture upon its currents look for prosperity or fame, even if they often founder in its depths. Jonathan Swift depicted the jobbers of the Exchange as traders waiting for shipwrecks in order to strip the dead, while the commercial houses of the City often used a ship or boat as a weather-vane and as a sign of good fortune. Three of the most common emblems in urban cemeteries are the shell, the ship and the anchor.

The starlings of Trafalgar Square are also the starlings who nest in the cliff faces of northern Scotland. The pigeons of London are descended from the wild rock-doves who lived among the steep cliffs of the northern and western shores of this island. For them the buildings of the city are cliffs still, and the streets are the endless sea stretching beyond them. But the real confluence lies in this--that London, for so long the arbiter of trade and of the sea, should have upon its fabric the silent signature of the tides and waves.

And when the waters parted, the London earth was revealed. In 1877, in a characteristically grand example of Victorian engineering, a vast well was taken down 1,146 feet at the southern end of Tottenham Court Road. It travelled hundreds of millions of years, touching the primeval landscapes of this city site, and from its evidence we can list the layers beneath our feet from the Devonian to the Jurassic and the Cretaceous. Above these strata lie 650 feet of chalk, outcrops of which can be seen upon the Downs or the Chilterns as the rim of the London Basin, that shallow saucer-like declivity in which the city rests. On top of the chalk itself lies the thick London clay which is in turn covered by deposits of gravel and brick-earth. Here, then, is the making of the city in more than one sense; the clay and the chalk and the brick-earth have for almost two thousand years been employed to construct the houses and public buildings of London. It is almost as if the city raised itself from its primeval origin, creating a human settlement from the senseless material of past time.

This clay is burned and compressed into "London Stock," the particular yellow-brown or red brick that has furnished the material of London housing. It truly represents the genius loci, and Christopher Wren suggested that "the earth around London, rightly managed, will yield as good brick as were the Roman bricks . . . and will endure, in our air, beyond any stone our island affords." William Blake called the bricks of London "well-wrought affections" by which he meant that the turning of clay and chalk into the fabric of the streets was a civilising process which knit the city with its primeval past. The houses of the seventeenth century are made out of dust that drifted over the London region in a glacial era 25,000 years before.

The London clay can yield more tangible evidence, also: the skeletons of sharks (in the East End it was popularly believed that shark's teeth might cure cramp), the skull of a wolf in Cheapside, and crocodiles in the clay of Islington. In 1682 Dryden recognised this now forgotten and invisible landscape of London:

Yet monsters from thy large increase we find

Engender'd on the Slyme thou leav'st behind.

Eight years later, in 1690, the remains of a mammoth were found beside what has since become King's Cross.

London clay can by the alchemy of weather become mud, and in 1851 Charles Dickens noted that there was so "much mud in the streets . . . that it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill." In the 1930s Louis-Ferdinand C*line took the motor buses of Piccadilly Circus to be a "herd of mastodons" returning to the territory they had left behind. In Mother London Michael Moorcock's late twentieth-century hero sees "monsters, by mud and giant ferns" while crossing the footbridge alongside the Hungerford railway bridge.

The mammoth of 1690 was only the first primeval relic to be discovered in the London region. Hippopotami and elephants lay beneath Trafalgar Square, lions at Charing Cross, and buffaloes beside St. Martin-in-the-Fields. A brown bear was discovered in north Woolwich, mackerel in the old brick-fields of Holloway and sharks in Brentford. The wild animals of London include reindeer, giant beavers, hyenas and rhinoceri which once grazed by the swamps and lagoons of the Thames. And that landscape has not entirely faded. Within recent memory the mist from the ancient marshes of Westminster destroyed the frescoes of St. Stephen's. It is still possible, beside the National Gallery, to detect the rise of ground between the middle and upper terraces of the Thames in the Pleistocene era.

This was not, even then, an unpeopled region. Within the bones of the King's Cross mammoth were also found pieces of a flint hand-axe which can be dated to the Palaeolithic period. We can say with some certainty that for half a million years there has been in London a pattern of habitation and hunting if not of settlement. The first great fire of London was started, a quarter of a million years ago, in the forests south of the Thames. That river had by then taken its appointed course but not its later appearance; it was very broad, fed by many streams, occluded by forests, bordered by swamps and marshes.

The prehistory of London invites endless speculation and there is a certain pleasure to be derived from the prospect of human settlement in areas where, many thousands of years later, streets would be laid out and houses erected. There is no doubt that the region has been continually occupied for at least fifteen thousand years. A great gathering of flint tools, excavated in Southwark, is assumed to mark the remains of a Mesolithic manufactory; a hunting camp of the same period has been discovered upon Hampstead Heath; a pottery bowl from the Neolithic period was unearthed in Clapham. On these ancient sites have been found pits and post-holes, together with human remains and evidence of feasting. These early people drank a potion similar to mead or beer. Like their London descendants, they left vast quantities of rubbish everywhere. Like them, too, they met for the purposes of worship. For many thousands of years these ancient peoples treated the great river as a divine being to be placated and surrendered to its depths the bodies of their illustrious dead.

In the late Neolithic period there appeared, from the generally marshy soil on the northern bank of the Thames, twin hills covered by gravel and brick-earth, surrounded by sedge and willow. They were forty to fifty feet in height, and were divided by a valley through which flowed a stream. We know them as Cornhill and Ludgate Hill, with the now buried Walbrook running between. Thus emerged London.

The name is assumed to be of Celtic origin, awkward for those who believe that there was no human settlement here before the Romans built their city. Its actual meaning, however, is disputed. It might be derived from Llyn-don, the town or stronghold (don) by the lake or stream (Llyn); but this owes more to medieval Welsh than ancient Celtic. Its provenance might be Laindon, "long hill," or the Gaelic lunnd, "marsh." One of the more intriguing speculations, given the reputation for violence which Londoners were later to acquire, is that the name is derived from the Celtic adjective londos meaning "fierce."

There is a more speculative etymology which gives the honour of naming to King Lud, who is supposed to have reigned in the century of the Roman invasion. He laid out the city's streets and rebuilt its walls. Upon his death he was buried beside the gate which bore his name, and the city became known as Kaerlud or Kaerlundein, "Lud's City." Those of sceptical cast of mind may be inclined to dismiss such narratives but the legends of a thousand years may contain profound and particular truths.

The origin of the name, however, remains mysterious. (It is curious, perhaps, that the name of the mineral most associated with the city--coal--also has no certain derivation.) With its syllabic power, so much suggesting force or thunder, it has continually echoed through history--Caer Ludd, Lundunes, Lindonion, Lundene, Lundone, Ludenberk, Longidinium, and a score of other variants. There have even been suggestions that the name is more ancient than the Celts themselves, and that it springs from some Neolithic past.

We must not necessarily assume that there were settlements or defended enclosures upon Ludgate Hill or Cornhill, or that there were wooden trackways where there are now great avenues, but the attractions of the site might have been as obvious in the third and fourth millennia bc as they were to the later Celts and Romans. The hills were well defended, forming a natural plateau, with the river to the south, fens to the north, marshes to the east, and another river, later known as the Fleet, to the west. It was fertile ground, well watered by springs bubbling up through the gravel. The Thames was easily navigable at this point, with the Fleet and the Walbrook providing natural harbours. The ancients trackways of England were also close at hand. So from earliest time London was the most appropriate site for trade, for markets, and for barter. The City has for much of its history been the centre of world commerce; it is perhaps instructive to note that it may have begun with the transactions of Stone Age people in their own markets.

All this is speculation, not altogether uninformed, but evidence of a more substantial kind has been discovered in later levels of London earth. In those long stretches of time designated as the "Late Bronze Age" and the "Early Iron Age"--a period spanning almost a thousand years--shards and fragments of bowls, and pots, and tools, were left all over London. There are signs of prehistoric activity in the areas now known as St. Mary Axe and Gresham Street, Austin Friars and Finsbury Circus, Bishopsgate and Seething Lane, with altogether some 250 "finds" clustered in the area of the twin hills together with Tower Hill and Southwark. From the Thames itself many hundreds of metal objects have been retrieved, while along its banks is to be found frequent evidence of metal-working. This is the period from which the great early legends of London spring. It is also, in its latter phase, the age of the Celts.

In the first century bc, Julius Caesar's description of the region around London suggests the presence of an elaborate, rich and well-organised tribal civilisation. Its population was "exceedingly large" and "the ground thickly studded with homesteads." The nature and role of the twin hills throughout this period cannot with certainty be given; perhaps these were sacred places, or perhaps their well-defined position allowed them to be used as hill-forts in order to protect the trade carried along the river. There is every reason to suppose that this area of the Thames was a centre of commerce and of industry, with a market in iron products as well as elaborate workings in bronze, with merchants from Gaul, Rome and Spain bringing Samian ware, wine and spices in exchange for corn, metals and slaves.

In the history of this period completed by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1136, the principal city in the island of Britain is undoubtedly London. But according to modern scholars his work is established upon lost texts, apocryphal embellishments and uninformed conjecture. Where Geoffrey speaks of kings, for example, they prefer the nomenclature of tribes; he dates events by means of biblical parallel, while they provide indicators such as "Late Iron Age"; he elucidates patterns of conflict and social change in terms of individual human passion, where more recent accounts of prehistory rely upon more abstract principles of trade and technology. The approaches may be contradictory but they are not necessarily incompatible. It is believed by historians of early Britain, for example, that a people known as the Trinovantes settled on territory to the north of the London region. Curiously enough, Geoffrey states that the first name of the city was Trinovantum. He also mentions the presence of temples within London itself; even if they had existed, these palisades and wooden enclosures would since have been lost beneath the stone of the Roman city as well as the brick and cement of succeeding generations.

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London 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 30 reviews.
Miss_Melly More than 1 year ago
The sights, smells, sounds of thousands of years of London engulf you as you wander the streets of London with Ackroyd. This book is responsible for absorbing hours and days and, yes, weeks of my life. The "problem" is that each detail, each perfectly balanced phrase is so well researched, and presented in such a compelling way, that not only could I NOT speed read through this - I found myself touching and examining every sentence and thought process.

Not for the faint of heart or the casual reader! This very long and heavy book demands your full attention - you will not be able to sort of watch the football game while meandering through the chapters. You will be riveted to this challenging romp through the centuries.
LDAJr More than 1 year ago
I bought this book quite by accident. I was looking for Edward Rutherford's highly readable book by the same name and ordered Ackroyd's book by mistake - a big mistake! Ackroyd's book was not written for me but I read every remarkable chapter he wrote about this dreadful city called London. He had a story to tell; so I listened patiently as he described a city so grotesque that even the great plague of 1665; the great fire of 1666 or the blitz of 1940-1 could alter either the landscape or the character of London. He did not have a single good word to say for the place - just 893 pages of impeccably-researched contempt for the people and the city.
Guest More than 1 year ago
History as taught in the classroom is often dull and lifeless. Ackroyd excels at making London of history come alive for the reader. His book is a joy for those who wish to know a little or a lot more of the history of London culture, the land it comprises and the people within it. Each chapter focuses on a new facet of London, a new theme that immediately engages the reader. For those, like myself, who enjoy primary sources, Ackroyd is careful to prepare a full bibliography that is easily searched and referenced.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What an interesting idea, to write the biography of a city. Having been to London many times and loving that city, it was thrilling to read a comprehensive history of it. Very easy to read and understand, and helps to put all the different eras into perspective. Makes me anxious to read Ackroyd's bio of the Thames.
Mathew on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I Love London, I Love this Book. All kinds of things to learn about one of the most fascinating cities in the world.
furriebarry on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Less a biography and more a love letter. In fact more a collection of 5000 word love letters ranging on subject from the inane to the simply boring. Overuse of quotes and a lack of analysis beyong the fawning, there is nothing here for anyone other than trivia fans. It manages to be too narrow during each chapter, to broad overall and unfailingly shallow. Disappointing.
thronm on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ackroyd's literary talents create a living creature rather than a straight history or guide to London. It is best to know London's surfaces well before wading into this book so that the depths explored can be felt as you walk London or remembering it. A biography written by one who knows what is above and below the streets and what lurks around each corner. I would highly recommend Ackroyd's novel Hawksmore if you like this book.
RandyStafford on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I've only had the opportunity to spend a few days in London, so I can't claim to know the city well. But, says Ackroyd - himself seemingly a lifelong Londoner, it's been centuries since anyone can claim to really know the city. His bibliographic essay notes there are at least 21, 778 works on the city, and he doesn't claim to have read them all. Still, he has overturned a fair sized library for this book , added some personal observations, and produced an impressionistic, kaleidoscopic book. Ackroyd eschews a straightforward chronological history. There are sections on London from its beginnings to 1066, medieval London, the Great Fire, Victorian London, and the city's destruction in the Blitz and its later rebuilding. But most of the book is essay like chapters built around themes covering every aspect of London life from its Underground and buried past to its notorious fogs and smogs, its wildlife and street life, markets illicit and licit, disasters and buildings, festivals and executions. And it's not exactly a celebration of the city. Again and again he returns to the metaphor of London as prison. The exemplar here is Jack Sheppard who escaped from London prisons six times. Yet, he never left the city for more than a few days even though it cost him his life. London as theater is Ackroyd's other metaphor. It extends far beyond the literal stage to the garb of its inhabitants or the speeches of the soon to be hanged at Newgate. London, emphasizes Ackroyd, is a great commercial maw. All has been subsumed in trade at one time or another from the goods of empire coming in at the Thames docks to the sewer hunters and mudlarks scouring muck for treasures. Men, women, and children all played their roles. Even would-be rebels became a trade in Carnaby Street. One of the most fascinating things in the book is Ackroyd's frequent quotes from foreign visitors. Yoshio Markino, a Japanese painter, noted that the garish colors of London's buildings became beautiful when seen in a fog. Dostoevsky remarked on Londoners haste to drink themselves insensible. (After reading the book's accounts of London riots and drinking, one is tempted to see some modern London problems as a return to some sort of default state for the city.) How certain London neighborhoods have long been associated with certain acivities is also well told by Ackroyd. He not only talks about the famous Soho but Clerkenwell as well. The latter has, for centuries, been associated with religious heretics and revolutionaries. (Lenin lived there for a time.) And the same neighborhood has a long tradition of clockmaking. (Perhaps explaining why Hiram Maxim worked on his machine guns there.) Given Ackroyd's many books on literary figures, quotes from British literary figures are to be expected. (Ackroyd notes that it is exceptional for them not to have a London connection.) Dickens, Defoe, Smollett, Milton, Boswell, Orwell, and Wolfe all had things to say about London in essays, letters, and fiction. The literary minded reader may be tempted to make a game of remembering relevant quotes and writers not in the book. As well as being associated with literature and the capitol of empire, London's bustle helped develop the theories of Darwin and Engels - though Ackroyd asserts this in passing without much proof. The instrument makers of London were crucial to developing the science of the Enlightenment. There are three minor quibbles with the book. Some of the anecdotes do get repeated though not many in a book so long. Second and more seriously, Ackroyd exhibits some unquestioned pieties. Seeing the poor as diseased and dirty is not a totally groundless stereotype. Mental illness can underlie all three conditions as well as less pathological mental traits. And Ackroyd, in a section on immigrants to London, makes the lazy analogy that complaints about today's immigrants are the same - and equally groundless - as those of the past. That ignores the numbers and cultures of Britian's c
bell7 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I brought this book home from the library soon after my trip to London, all excited to dig into the history of the places I had been and learn more about this great historic city. In the beginning, my reading was going well. Thought it is structured thematically rather than chronologically, I got a kick out of recognizing street names that I had walked or passed and got a kick out of imagining the city during the Middle Ages.Fast forward several hundred pages and several weeks later. I'm still enjoying learning the history, but reading has become slow. Ackroyd includes several quotes and then interprets them, English-major fashion, making a comment about "London itself" and sometimes, IMHO, stretching things a bit. This is getting old, and repetitive. His quotes come from both fiction and nonfiction, but there is not one note included at the back for me to look at his sources. Instead, he has an eleven-page-long "Essay on Sources" that, should you have the energy after 760 pages of text, you can read if you like. Frankly, the book was due back at the library a few days ago, and I thought it was safe to skip (though I did briefly glance through it last night and added London at War to the TBR list). Comprehensive, but a bit repetitive. I daresay I would've liked it better if I hadn't read the last 300 pages in the last 5 days.
kidzdoc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This weighty tome about the life of the city of London was a massive disappointment, and a grueling and nearly impossible book to read. It isn't a biography in the linear sense, rather it is a collection of short chapters about different aspects of the city throughout its history, including its rivers, churches, theatres, and outcasts. Each chapter consists mainly of quotes from other sources, and its lack of narrative flow makes for an exceptionally dry and thoroughly unrewarding read, which reminded me of an 800 page essay written by a college freshman. Anyone brave enough to tackle this book is advised to read it in tiny segments, or, as I did, skim the book to read the most interesting sections.
cabegley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Peter Ackroyd's London: The Biography is a huge, sprawling, messy book, somewhat like London itself. Rather than look at London chronologically, Ackroyd moves back and forth in time while exploring different topics. This structure worked very well, as the various layers gradually form a picture of London as a whole. While Ackroyd does touch on major historical points (the Great Fire of 1666, the Blitz of World War II), his main focus is on broader themes such as economic development, poverty, health, urban sprawl, and crime.London: The Biography was a long, sometimes tough read. I was interested in the social history, but not so much in the topography and geography. I tended to fade a bit when Ackroyd would go into long discourses on the history of development of a particular street, for instance. I often found the last paragraph of a chapter to be forced and a bit windy as he would try to segue from the topic of that chapter to the topic of the next. For the most part, however, his writing was lovely, painting strong pictures of London in all its facets.My sense was that Ackroyd wrote this book for Londoners themselves, and he assumes a body of local knowledge and vocabulary that as an American reader I didn't have. I would have appreciated a glossary in the American printing. I wish I'd read this book years ago, though--I learned so much that I can directly apply to the fiction I read.
piefuchs on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A thematic history of a great city. The amount of material is amazing, however, the structure leads each chapter being a book within a book and hence a disjointed read.
shipw on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It's taken me two years to read this book. I received it as a gift after visiting London and exploring the city on foot. As I started to read I would come across an interesting tidbit, and head online to find out more. This book is crammed with such tidbits and I found it hard to read more than a chapter at a time without being distracted by the possibilities of finding out more. I really enjoyed the book and soon adjusted to Ackroyd's style. At the end I felt I had learned more than from most other books I've read, and I'm looking forward to returning to London with a new critical eye.
billiecat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As far as I am concerned, you can have Paris in the springtime. Give me London in the rain.Ackroyd's book shares many characteristics with its namesake - it is crowded, organic, chaotic, and full of life. It also shares many of the City's faults - it's hard sometimes to find what you are looking for, and you can look in vain for any reason behind the juxtapositions of different cultural artifacts. Nevertheless, anyone who has spent more than the obligatory few days in the obligatory tourist sites will recognize the city from Ackroyd's prose.One may complain that Ackroyd lingers too much on London's history of crime, social unrest, and dirt. Well, what do you expect of a city that boasts having had the "Great Stink" of 1858? Casual travelers, people who are looking for a simplistic history to read while in line for Madame Tussaud's, and anyone who desires a Disney-fied, Mary Poppins fantasy will be unhappy with this book.But if you want to know what London _feels_ like, this book comes closer than anything else I have read to making me feel like I do when I am there. There is no city better for aimless wandering, stumbling through alleys, exploring the Underground, and observing the small details. It is a world-city grown pell-mell by greed, lust and need, with beauty in unexpected places and quiet rarer than gold, and more precious. In short, it is life. And, as Samuel Johnson famously said, "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."
J.v.d.A. on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A disappointing history of a fabulous city, in my opinion. Much of the book was a real slog to get through and frankly I couldn't wait until I reached the end.
john257hopper on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A rambling, roller coaster of a book, which in some cases might be a minus point, but in this case seems to go with the sprawling nature and long history of the city. A great thought provoking read.
rachelh on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Exhaustive and massively entertaining study of one of the world's great cities. Covers a thousand years of history and countless stories in between. I can't believe that any more comprehensive tome on the city of London exists.
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